Category Archives: Health

Chrissie Swan’s Body Isn’t Your Business Either

So, today Chrissie Swan “confessed” to smoking while pregnant. I’m putting “confessed” in scare quotes because every media outlet seems to be using it and everyone, even Swan herself, is behaving as if she has committed a horrendous transgression against humankind. She made the revelation under duress, because a paparazzo photographed her without her consent (as they always do) and then her management team lost the fight to outbid Women’s Weekly for rights to the photos. Swan has spoken on her radio show and on television, obviously very distressed and breaking down in tears during both speeches.

There are so many things wrong with this situation, I hardly know where to begin.

First of all, I never stop being appalled at our collective lust for the private details of celebrities’ lives, especially our hyena-like hunger to tear them apart at the slightest hint of wrongdoing or flaw. Secondly, I’m disgusted by the way the media and audiences are treating Swan like a naughty child who needs to be scolded and patronised. It’s clear she knew perfectly well that smoking while pregnant was not ideal, and that she struggled desperately both with the smoking itself and the decision to keep it secret. She does not need to be schooled on the evils of cigarettes (I’d be surprised if ANYONE living in Australia is unaware of the health ramifications of smoking these days).

On that note, I’m sure everyone must realise this, but cigarettes are addictive. Nicotine, like any other drug of addiction, changes the chemical makeup of a person’s brain and makes quitting hard for most and all but impossible for some. Just because you – or your mum, or your auntie or your boss’s brother – have had success in quitting permanently does not mean everyone will have the same experience. We’re all dealing with different things in our lives and we all have different bodies which may respond differently to nicotine and to withdrawal. Lots of people quit multiple times before they are finally able to stop smoking for good and sadly plenty of people quit multiple times and still die of smoking-related diseases. It’s not an issue of sheer willpower. Willpower is not always enough.

There is a psychological and emotional component to cigarette addiction as well as a chemical one. When I was nineteen I smoked, at parties, bars and clubs, for a grand total of one month. I only got through one pack of light cigarettes before I decided to give up, so I was far from addicted and I didn’t so much have to quit as just not buy another pack. And even I found myself craving a cigarette sometimes, in stressful situations (especially social ones). As recently as last year – over seven years since my last cigarette – I smelled the nostalgic combo of bourbon and tobacco on a friend of mine and, to my great surprise, desperately wanted a smoke. There’s no possibility that I have ever been chemically addicted to nicotine, and yet the impulse remained.

I’m mostly in favour of the lengths the Australian government has gone to to restrict when and where people can smoke. I enjoy being able to go to a club or a bar without coming home smelling like an ashtray, and I imagine that would be even more the case if I worked in one of those places. I approve of making various public spaces no smoking zones, and from the research I have read on its efficacy in preventing uptake of cigarette smoking, especially in young people, the plain packaging initiative seems like an excellent idea to me.

But this incident and people’s reactions to it are not the same as a public initiative to restrict smoking and deter people from smoking. This is the court of public opinion attacking a single individual person for smoking while pregnant. The government initiatives, even where they add to stigma against smokers, are about reducing the harm caused by cigarettes (to smokers and others) and assisting people to make good decisions about cigarettes, by deterring them from starting to smoke or helping them to quit smoking when they want to. This furore isn’t about trying to help Chrissie Swan or anyone else quit smoking, and I suspect if she wasn’t pregnant there would be little scandal around the photographs at all, even though it might be embarrassing to her. This isn’t even about reducing the harm caused by cigarette addiction during pregnancy, or people might recognise that by limiting her smoking as much as she can Swan is trying to reduce harm to her foetus, and struggling.

This is about pregnant women’s bodies being public property. Because Swan’s uterus has a future person inside it, people not only believe that her body is no longer solely her own – which is a larger issue for another time, perhaps – but that her body is now THEIR property to comment on. Even when they have no relationship to her or the foetus she is carrying. Even when they don’t even know her. And pregnant women get this all the time, over all sorts of things; their eating habits, their weight, exercise, medication, alcohol and so on. Not just from the health professionals they deliberately engage to discuss their pregnancy, but from family, friends, and complete strangers in the street. The more information we have about possible risks during pregnancy, the more people think that pregnant women’s bodies and behaviours are their business.

My mother told my a story as we watched the news this evening about when she was seven months pregnant with me. She went to a bar with some friends and had a single glass of wine, her first since she started trying to get pregnant, and a friend of hers came up to her and said “you’ve waited so long to have a baby, do you really think you should risk drinking while you’re pregnant?” This was a double shot of presumptuousness because mum hadn’t been trying to get pregnant for long even though she had been married for around eight years, but furthermore it was fucking rude.

Perhaps if there were not such stigma and shame associated with people being unable to quit smoking (or other drugs), and if it were not compounded with the additional stigma and shame associated with being seen as a Bad Mother (TM), it would be easier for someone like Chrissie Swan – who wanted to quit smoking while pregnant and found she couldn’t – to seek help and support from a doctor and those close to her.

It’s the golden rule all over again: Not your body, not your business. Not even if that body is pregnant. Not even if that body belongs to someone famous. Not. Your. Business.

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I Don’t Care if You’re Healthy

A button style badge, half pink and half white, with the slogan "NOT YOUR BODY. NOT YOUR BUSINESS".Source: Everyday Feminism Shop

A button style badge, half pink and half white, with the slogan “NOT YOUR BODY. NOT YOUR BUSINESS.”
Buy from the Everyday Feminism Shop

Let’s be clear. I don’t actually give a flying fuck whether being fat is or can be healthy or not.

A person’s right to an enjoyable life, to be treated with respect and to have access to all the things I want fat people to have access to, such as quality medical care and clothes that fit, is not predicated on how healthy they are.

I am not interested in proving my worth to others by living up to anybody else’s standards of healthiness. My worth, like the worth of every human being, is self-evident. The right to basic human respect is not conferred upon us once we fulfil certain conditions, every one of us is inherently entitled to it.

How healthy I am and how much effort I put into developing or mainting “good health” is nobody’s business but mine. Not mine and my friends’ and family’s. Not mine and my doctor’s. Not mine and taxpayers’. Mine.

Undoing harmful stereotypes is valuable work, and I completely understand the desire of fat athletes to push the message that you can be fit, athletic and fat, and that fatness does not preclude displays of physical prowess. I think fat dancers and fat marathon runners and fat gymnasts and so on are excellent, and deserve as much credit for their skills as any thin athlete.

But where does promoting the existence of fit fatties leave those of us who are not athletes, who are not paragons of fitness, who have chronic illnesses or disabilities, or simply don’t care very much about jogging or eating all our vegetables? To me, the dark side of “fat people can be fit and healthy too” is an implicit support of the notion that being fit and healthy is what confers on fat people the right to respect and fair treatment. It isn’t. Being people is why we have a right to respect and fair treatment.

That only healthy fatties deserve respect is not the message fit fatties are trying to promote; I don’t for a moment think that activists like Ragen Chastain or other fat athletes who spend time pointing out what they can do believe fat people who are less fit or flexible or active than they are don’t deserve the same respect they do. But it’s a message that sometimes comes across anyway. Fat activists seem to spend so much of our time and energy debunking myths about what fat people can’t do, and yet fat stigma persists (as is clear from Ragen’s numerous posts about confronting fat hate with demonstrations of her own fitness). How many times have I heard thinner people or media say “I’m all for body acceptance, but you’ve got to be healthy” or “fat acceptance is fine as long as you’ve got a healthy lifestyle”?

No. Fat acceptance is fine, the end. If your “lifestyle” is not hurting anyone else then it is nobody else’s business.

You know what does make fat people unhealthy? Internalised fat stigma. And as long as not being fit enough or healthy enough or active enough or not putting some arbitrarily determined amount of energy into “being healthy” is an excuse to treat fat people like subhumans, then fat stigma and its negative health outcomes for fat people will persist.

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Fat and the “Unhealthy Role Model”

I enjoy using Pinterest to find new plus size items, labels and stores and to share my favourites with other fatties. I have a Pinterest wardrobe a hundred times bigger than my real clothing collection, but I have actually bought things I first saw on someone else’s clothing board, been inspired by outfits, makeup and creative accessorising I’ve seen on Pinterest, and pinned things I liked which I later went back and bought (and reviewed on my board).

But you can’t go a day trawling through the plus size pins without seeing something like this:

“Kaitlyn Jenkins: I love this, but I hate heart disease and diabetes. It’s a shame girls are growing up in America thinking they can live healthy lives although they ultimately can’t.”

“Gelynne Smallwood: Hmmm… I don’t hear a bashing going on, but a reality check. Eventually the extra weight takes its toll on the body leading to disease. I agree she is a beautiful girl, in a beautiful outfit! But the reality of carrying extra weight catches up with you eventually. But until that woman can figure out how to shed some of her excess, kudos to her for workin’ it and looking gorgeous!”

Notice how Gelynne manages to turn a compliment for “a beautiful girl in a beautiful outfit” into a concern troll about how the “extra weight” will “catch up eventually”? She doesn’t hate fat people! She’s just worried about this poor model (whom she has never met and probably will never meet) getting sick!

Forgetting for a moment that the science about fat is not a simple matter of a specific fatness threshold tipping us into inevitable disease and premature death, why is this sort of discussion relevant to a picture of a plus size model on a pinboard dedicated to “Beautiful Plus Size Fashion”? Why do people feel like it is necessary to remind fat people that they believe (rightly or wrongly) we are at risk of disease, in the context of admiring fashion designed for fat women? Remember, we’re not talking about a post exhorting readers to spend all day on the couch eating nothing but deep-fried cheeseburgers for a year, this is an image of a fat model in a plus size dress. There is no indication of her habits or medical stats (except that she’s a bit fat, of course). As another commenter pointed out:

“Bex Loudmouth: Kaitlyn, this whole supposed ‘role model’ thing is making me mad. No matter you’re health, size, height, skin color, you need clothes. Not to mention, none of those things effect whether my currency is any good.”

Even if you believe that every fat person is minutes from death at any given time, surely you must agree that they need clothes to wear – and are fair game for companies who want their money – in the brief window of life they still have left?

I think the issue that is really behind these comments is hinted at when Bex mentions “role models”. The idea that a women is obliged to act as a suitable “role model” for other women from the moment she is photographed and her image is displayed publicly is a bit ridiculous. But fat haters are afraid that if fat people have attractive, well-dressed, confident and happy looking role models to identify with, we will start to believe that it is possible to be attractive, well-dressed, confident and happy while still remaining fat! If fat people have stylish, nice looking clothes to wear that give them an opportunity to take up and participate in fashion trends, they might start to actually like the way they look! As plus size fashion (as opposed to simply plus sized clothing) becomes more and more available and plus size models and celebrities become (however slowly) more visible, fashion’s power as an incentive to make us diet is beginning to wane. And we can’t have that.

So in the face of fat women starting to like the way they look, and starting to dress unapologetically and joyfully in bright colours, prints, tight stretchy fabrics and fashion forward styles, the attack must shift to a focus on health.

Ah, health. It’s such a curiously vague concept when you really look at it closely. What does “healthy” really mean? Free from disease? Free from physical or psychological impairment? Those definitions are a bit of a problem for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and besides, many clinically “overweight” or “obese” people are currently free from disease or impairment and we are told unequivocally that fat is unhealthy. Free from the risk of disease or impairment, then. But then nobody can ever be truly healthy, since anyone can fall victim to an illness or injury, anyone may have the potential for illness or premature death hidden in their genetic code, or may be unlucky regardless of the steps they take to maintain a supposedly healthy lifestyle. Elite athletes, people we often praise as role models for good health, are at risk of injury all the time and are frequently impaired for long stretches by sports-related hurts.

The reality is that “health” is a socially constructed concept that changes across historical periods, cultures and individual beliefs. That doesn’t make it meaningless, but it does make it rather problematic to use it as a measuring stick against which to test the worth of individuals.

A friend of mine once suggested to me that health – whatever we may define it as – is useful only in so far as it allows us to live the lives we want. The things we want to do (or not do) and the way we want to feel determines the extent to which the pursuit of healthiness is important to us. Some want to run marathons, play wheelchair basketball, hit home runs. Some want to bake the perfect sponge cake, paint landscapes, go for leisurely walks. For one person, wearing a size six might be more important to them than eating cake, whereas for me eating cake whenever I feel like it is more important than being a certain size. Neither is wrong, but our desires for our own lives are relevant here.

Personally, I know from experience that being a supposedly more healthy weight than my current weight involves a lot of work. Previously I considered that work worth doing. I thought about food and how much or what I was eating constantly, I spent hours at the gym and I endured physical and emotional pain, and at the time I enjoyed the results and believed they were worth the sacrifices I was making (and they did feel like sacrifices to me, although they don’t to everyone). Whether or not those results included a reduced risk of heart disease or cancer (both of which are in my family history anyway) is impossible to know. But my priorities, and what I desired from life, changed. I found that I did not want to do the things I had to do to attain and maintain that lower weight for the rest of my life. I found that there were other things I wanted to do more, and I found that the “sacrifice” of being fat no longer felt like a sacrifice to me.

I will not know if my decision to stop dieting forever has doomed me to heart disease until I either get heart disease or die of old age. And if I ever am diagnosed with heart disease, it will be hard to say whether my fatness or the eating disorder of my early twenties or simple genetic predisposition was “responsible”. I’m okay with that. I would like to contend that, on an individual basis, health statistics don’t really matter unless they are actually important to you individually.

You may argue that fatties who get heart disease will go on to use your! taxpayer! dollars! to access treatment, and so their healthiness (meaning their willingness to undertake behaviours that may or may not change their individual likelihood of developing a disease) is your concern. My response would be that – my personal belief in a right to free healthcare aside – the majority of fat people are themselves taxpayers, and are surely just as entitled as any thin person to access the fruits of their taxpayer dollars.  I have private health insurance, myself, and don’t tend to use public healthcare much anyway.

What about fat people who diet stringently, successfully reduce their weight and get heart disease anyway? Or born-thin people with heart disease? Perhaps you would only bar those who live “risky lifestyles” from getting medicare-funded treatment for heart disease. In that case, should people who use mobile phones be turned away from brain cancer treatments? Drivers barred from the emergency room when they are involved in car accidents? We won’t need sports medicine any more, since athletes are well aware of the risks involved when they strap on a pair of running shoes. Surely you agree that these people, just like wilful fatties, are taking up valuable medical resources that should go to the blameless sick people who bear no responsibility for their illnesses!

Well, heck, maybe you do. I don’t, though. I think the health imperative in Australian society, and its increasing use as a weapon against fat people (not to mention other marginalised groups, which often overlap), is a problem. And health – whether it’s current lack of illness or statistically lower risk of illness in the future – certainly shouldn’t be a determiner of whether or not people deserve nice clothes.

But in the interest of fairly documenting the risks of fatness, I’ll leave you with this particular gem from the Pinterest comment stream:

“Rachel Jones: For every extra pound of fat, your body has to produce 400 miles of extra veins. This DOES tax the cardiovascular system. Is she beautiful for who she is? Sure! Everyone is. Is she overweight? Maybe so. Is obesity a problem? YES. I’m on a weight loss journey myself, so I don’t say these things lightly.”

Gosh. That would tax the cardiovascular system, wouldn’t it? It’s a wonder my heart is still beating at all.

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